Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: A Sound of Music Discography

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: A Sound of Music Discography Now previewing at Broadway's Martin Beck Theatre is a major new production of the final Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, The Sound of Music. While the publicity for this production emphasizes that it's the show's first Broadway revival -- and it is -- it has had a number of previous returns to the NY metropolitan area, including stagings at City Center, Jones Beach Marine Theatre, and the 1990 New York City Opera mounting, the latter the only (and almost definitely the last) time since the Broadway premiere that New York saw the show in its original form.
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Now previewing at Broadway's Martin Beck Theatre is a major new production of the final Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, The Sound of Music. While the publicity for this production emphasizes that it's the show's first Broadway revival -- and it is -- it has had a number of previous returns to the NY metropolitan area, including stagings at City Center, Jones Beach Marine Theatre, and the 1990 New York City Opera mounting, the latter the only (and almost definitely the last) time since the Broadway premiere that New York saw the show in its original form.

The current production is bound to get a cast recording, but the show has already been a frequent visitor to disc, so I am devoting this column to a rundown on the numerous preservations of the score. When it comes to recordings (and productions) of The Sound of Music, two issues are key:

1: Who is playing Maria? As opposed to a show like Cabaret to which we devoted our most recent discography, The Sound of Music was created for a star and is very much a vehicle for the leading lady. While it has a number of other good roles, it's not an ensemble show and can't fully succeed without a radiant, stellar presence at its center.

2: Which version of the score is being used, and which songs are present? This question did not, of course, exist prior to the 1965 film version, so it doesn't affect the first three major recordings discussed below. But because of the wild success of the movie, just about all subsequent stagings (with the as indicated exception of City Opera's) have, to varying degrees, altered the original stage text to reflect changes made for the film.

It is of course impossible to ignore Columbia/Sony's original 1959 Broadway cast album. A thrilling Broadway performance as Magda Sorel in Menotti's The Consul already to her credit, Patricia Neway brought an authority and richness of tone to the Mother Abbess that I have never heard equaled. Marian Marlowe is a delicious Elsa, while Theodore Bikel, Kurt Kasznar, Lauri Peters, and Brian Davies are all ideal. But the show was brought to Rodgers and Hammerstein by Mary Martin and created for her; while she was (at 47) obviously rather mature for the role, she was also so perfect for it that her age bothered no one. Martin's long established stage personality and innate spirituality connected with the words of the title song, "My Favorite Things," and the reprise of "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" in a way that no other subsequent Maria has quite approximated. Even with a wonderful star turn in I Do! I Do! to follow, The Sound of Music feels like a summation of Martin's career, the final major statement of her particular spirit. While the original Broadway production ran more than three years, the 1961 London mounting at the Palace Theatre (where Les Miz has been playing for over a decade) lasted six years, and didn't even need a star to succeed. The West End's first Maria was Jean Bayless, who had followed future Maria Julie Andrews in the Broadway The Boy Friend and has been little heard from since The Sound of Music. Covent Garden regular Constance Shacklock was the Mother Abbess, and Ivor Novello favorite Olive Gilbert was Sister Margaretta. The EMI cast recording, reissued a number of times on LP and CD, is decent but dull, lacking a single memorable performance.

But the next cast album is of much greater interest. The role of Maria is one of the few in the canon that can work equally well with genuine sopranos (like its current interpreter, Rebecca Luker) and lower-placed show voices (like Martin's). It got the full soprano treatment for the first time in the 1961 Australian production when it was taken on by the great voice of June Bronhill. Now retired, Bronhill was a major singer in her native Australia and in England; she performed opera, but achieved her greatest success in operetta at London's Sadler's Wells and as Elizabeth Barrett Browning in the lovely 1964 West End hit Robert and Elizabeth. She also made a huge hit in The Sound of Music, and her singing on the EMI Australian recording (reissued on LP) is splendid.

The London production was still running when the movie opened, and here's where the musical program changes. With Oscar Hammerstein II dead, Richard Rodgers wrote the lyrics for two new songs, "I Have Confidence" and "Something Good." The first of these was actually Maria's most specific character song, most of Maria's original numbers ("My Favorite Things," "Do-Re-Mi," "The Lonely Goatherd") being actual "songs" she shares with the children or the Mother Abbess. "Something Good" is a very attractive replacement for the somewhat stodgier "An Ordinary Couple." The film made other significant changes in the score: "My Favorite Things" was no longer a Maria-Mother Abbess duet, but instead took the place of "The Lonely Goatherd" in the storm scene, with the latter relegated to a puppet show. And it eliminated both of the numbers ("How Can Love Survive?," "No Way To Stop It") for Max and Elsa.

Julie Andrews came along at exactly the right moment for the film, and indeed, it's difficult to imagine it being made with anyone else. She is, of course, divine in it, her singing a perfect blend of genuine soprano and show voice. A generation or more of people learned the score from RCA's film soundtrack, so it was inevitable that subsequent stage productions would reflect the film changes. The next major production was the lavish and successful London revival at the Apollo Victoria (where Starlight Express has been playing since 1984), the occasion for the stage debut of pop singer and film actress Petula Clark. Clark's renditions of the numbers are unique and a treat to hear on the Epic cast album; she uses many of her trademark pop mannerisms, but makes them all work for the music. The supporting cast boasted Honor Blackman as Elsa, and none other than June Bronhill, graduating to the Mother Abbess. Blackman got to keep one ("How Can Love Survive?") of the character's numbers. While "My Favorite Things" was, as in the film, taken away from the Mother Abbess, Bronhill was given in its place a special version of "A Bell Is No Bell" which concluded, "in one," on a high note that brought the house down (this number has, to my knowledge, never been used again). Reflecting the film, the Clark revival brought in "Confidence" and "Something Good"; "Goatherd" was moved to a local fair scene.

Australia saw the show again in 1983, and the Maria was popular vocalist Julie Anthony, who starred in both the Australian and London Irene revivals and recently made several New York cabaret appearances. The EMI cast album is pleasant but unremarkable; Anthony is a very smooth singer, but she's more exciting on the London Irene recording.

Those are the major English-language cast albums; Florence Henderson, who opened the U.S. national tour, sings five songs from the score on an RCA Camden LP which also includes the same number of songs from the show that tied The Sound of Music for the Best Musical Tony Award, Fiorello!. There are several foreign cast recordings, including ones in Spanish (from Mexico City, under the title La Novicia Rebelde), Dutch, and Swedish. And there are a number of noteworthy studio recordings: In 1988, the score received the then- popular "cross-over" treatment, with Telarc releasing a CD featuring opera singers in the leads. This disc is the most complete recording of the score available, combining all the stage and film songs. Frederica von Stade (who has also recorded another Luker role, Show Boat's Magnolia) sings ravishingly even if she never really sounds like the role. The great soprano Eileen Farrell is heard (well past her prime, but still respectable) as the Mother Abbess, and one of today's top baritones, Hakan Hagegard, is the Captain. If the performance is less than thrilling, it features nothing as egregious as the cross-over version two years earlier of another R&H/Martin show, South Pacific.

I possess five British studio recordings. There's the Music For Pleasure disc with Anne Rogers (who in London created Andrews' role in The Boy Friend, replaced Andrews in My Fair Lady, and played Martin's I Do! role) as Maria and the glorious Patricia Routledge (best known to many these days for her Hyancinth Bucket on the TV series Keeping Up Appearances) as the Mother Abbess. A recent Pickwick CD stars Liz Robertson and Denis Quilley. And while a recent New York Times piece saw a few of the Von Trapps attempting to distance themselves from the musical, let's not forget that shortly after the show opened, RCA released an LP of The Trapp Family Singers offering their own interpretation of the score.

A final note on the current revival: It features the film's "I Have Confidence" and "Something Good" (the latter in place of "An Ordinary Couple"); puts "My Favorite Things" in the storm scene and moves "Goatherd" to the second-act concert sequence; and retains both Max-Elsa numbers.

-- You can contact me at kenmanbway@aol.com